Whiskey Advocate recently ran a story on the history of Old Overholt. I encourage you to read it, as it is quite an interesting story of how Old Overholt went from one of the most highly respected American whiskey brands to a nearly forgotten bottom-shelf offering. Long story short (and not to discourage a read), the brand’s nineteenth century glory and family heritage died during Prohibition. The company would land in corporate hands, and eventually into National Distillers (a now defunct corporation that once owned brands like Old Grand-Dad and Old Taylor).
Post-Prohibition would see the conglomeration of many American whiskey companies and the death of many labels. Many of those were rye whiskeys, which were falling out of fashion. Old Overholt continued in production, but its source for about a thirty-year period is largely unknown. It is suspected that during this time that Old Overholt’s mash bill was changed to account for a higher corn content, which might explain some of my tasting notes below.
Beam acquired the brand from National Distillers in 1987. Since that time, Old Overholt has been bottled as an 80-proof rye, and the current age statement reads a mere 3 years (Beam dropped the four year age statement in around 2013 in favor of the 3 year product). Recently, Beam announced an expansion of the Old Overholt line, with a 100-proof, Bonded offering that would in some ways return the brand to its days of old, when Old Overholt was a bottled-in-bond product, 100 proof, at least 4 year rye whiskey.
There is no indication that the recipe of the Old Overholt Bonded varies from what Beam produces for the 80-proof Old Overholt. The exact recipe is unknown. Sources point to Beam using a 51% rye mashbill for the Jim Beam Rye (more on that below). Corn likely makes up the vast majority of the remaining 49%. I suspect, as do others, that the Old Overholt product follows this same recipe, as would the other Jim Beam produced ryes (Jim Beam Rye is at least 4 years old and bottled at 90 proof; Knob Creek Rye is 100 proof and likely a bit older; Ri is bottled at 46% and is likely a bit older than the Jim Beam Rye as well).
Last week, Old Overholt Bonded hit our local stores. I picked up a bottle. To give this review some context, I put it side-by-side-by-side with the Old Overholt 80 proof rye and the Jim Beam Rye at 90 proof. These three products are Beam’s sub-$25 rye offerings, cut from the same mash, varying only in proof and probably a year in age.
Old Overholt Rye (3 year) (80 Proof)
Nose: Youthful herbal rye; white pepper; watery vanilla syrup; juicy fruit; wet wood/cardboard; corn; a surprisingly high amount of ethanol for 80 Proof. (2.5/5)
Palate: Typical 80 proof thin mouthfeel. Vanilla; cardboard; corn; some white pepper and clove spice; apple. (2.5/5)
Finish: Medium-short. Spiced apple and faint caramel/vanilla syrup; lingering herbal (dill, pepper, mint and even sage). Not bad flavors, but not exciting, punchy punchy or complex. (2/5)
Overall: There is nothing to hate about the Old Overholt Rye, but nothing to get too excited about either. I’m quite the fan of young ryes, but the low proof, the low quantity of rye, and the the otherwise young/cardboardy flavors don’t do this any favors. (2/5)
Value: My bottle is a couple of years old. I purchased it for $16. It still remains a sub-$20 bottle in this area. There just isn’t much utility in this bottle. It is too weak/bland for cocktails, and just not desirable as sipper. Even with a low price point, I’m not sure I go back for another. (2/5)
“There is nothing to hate about the Old Overholt Rye, but nothing to get too excited about either.”
Old Overholt Bonded Rye (“At least 4 years”) (100 Proof)
Nose: Salted caramel; apple crisp; vanilla; corn; rye grain (not spice, just grain); some white pepper; lightly floral. I get very little “rye” to this rye on the nose. (2.5/5)
Palate: Fairly rich on the mouthfeel; briny; caramel; some nuttiness; sweet corn. Still looking for the rye, but otherwise slightly more than satisfying. (3.5/5)
Finish: And odd caramel funkiness; drying and slightly bitter/medicinal. Not a fan. (2/5)
Overall: This Old Overholt Bonded is quite odd. It starts off as a decent bourbon (I was expecting a rye?). It moves into a fairly rich typical Beam profile on the palate (still can’t say I’d peg this for a rye – maybe something in the Old Grand Dad/Basil Hayden line). It then finishes in a way that I wish I could avoid. The Old Overholt Rye at 80 proof is much more of a rye than this Old Overholt Bonded. This is not what I hoped Beam would put out. Very excited, but honestly let down. (2.5/5)
Value: Let’s begin with the notion that this isn’t a rye man’s rye. It’s a bourbon. At $23, I’d say I’d take Old Grand-Dad Bottled-in-Bond 8 times out of 10 over this. And that is just staying in the same family. I expected more, and certainly more rye notes. Hard to score, but at least it was cheap. (3/5)
“The Old Overholt Rye at 80 proof is much more of a rye than this Old Overholt Bonded. This is not what I hoped Beam would put out.”
Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye (NAS) (90 Proof)
Nose: White pepper; caramel/toffee; vanilla; lightly floral; green apple; orange/lemon citrus; saw dust. Pleasant, not old or complex, but pleasant. (3/5)
Palate: Decent body. White pepper; wet cardboard; grain; caramel; orange; soda water. This is not a good combination of flavors. (2/5)
Finish: Short and flat. Saw dust; caramel; vanilla; white sugar and white pepper spice; faint and fading herbal notes. (2/5)
Overall: I don’t see much reason to reach for the Jim Beam Rye bottle ever again – unless you are a fan of cheap Beam bourbons but desire a *bit* more flavor. (2/5)
Value: This is a $20 bottle. Within the beam family, I’d rather have the Old Overholt or the Old Overholt Bonded. And neither of those do I rate very highly. Just stay away. (2/5).
“I don’t see much reason to reach for the Jim Beam Rye bottle ever again – unless you are a fan of cheap Beam bourbons but desire a *bit* more flavor.”
[Bonus Content – When purchasing this bottle, the million dollar question for me was not how it compared to standard Old Overholt (although I obviously desired to know). The big question is how it compared to what many perceive to be its direct competitor – Heaven Hill’s Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond. Rittenhouse is a 4 year, 100 proof rye offering in basically the same price range as Old Overholt Bonded. Which would be my favorite $25 bonded rye? I’d have to find out – and the scores will be the judge.]
Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye (NAS – at least 4 years) (100 Proof)
Nose: Rich. Red wine/cognac sweetness; apricot; light herbal/floral; caramel; grain. (3/5)
Palate: Cognac and peach brandy sweetness; caramel; peanut; herb, floral and white pepper spice hit about half way through the palate. Delicious but light on the rye. (3/5)
Finish: Medium. Caramel, vanilla and lingering rye herbal spice. (3/5)
Overall: Rittenhouse may define satisfying for me. Can I imagine how this could be improved? Certainly. But I have to make myself think about it to go there. Its just satisfying to drink. If I had a criticism, I’d ask for bigger rye flavors. But if they gave me that, I’d pay $50+ and call it Pikesville. (3/5)
Value: I paid about $24. Unfortunately, I see the price creeping up on this. At around that $25, I’d gladly pick up a replacement bottle; it’s nice in cocktails and decent to sip on. Very versatile and no buyer’s remorse. (4/5)
“Rittenhouse may define satisfying for me.”
Scott is a co-founder of Flight Club and a frequent writer and reviewer on the Club’s blog.